Magazine article The Christian Century

Justice and Open Borders

Magazine article The Christian Century

Justice and Open Borders

Article excerpt

Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration

By David Miller

Harvard University Press, 240 pp., $35.00

How to keep balanced on an issue like immigration? At one extreme, some want to build walls and exclude Muslims. At the other, generous souls (many of them Christians) would extend unconditional welcome for unlimited numbers of uninvited arrivals. Is there a moral position between these two views--a position that would treat with dignity, compassion, and generosity those who seek to live in our country but would also honor a nation's need to control its borders and reasonably limit immigrant flows? David Miller thinks so.

Miller, a careful philosopher and professor of political theory at Oxford University, begins by asking the fundamental questions: Why does a nation have a moral right to exclude anyone who wants to enter? If all human life is of equal worth, why should one's fellow citizens matter more than "strangers" who want to enter and join the nation?

While Miller respects the strong cosmopolitanism that motivates such questions, he eventually settles on what he calls a "weak cosmopolitanism," in which a nation is morally justified in limiting entry in accordance with the interests and wishes of its citizens, subject to two requirements: (1) that adequate provision be made for admitting genuine political refugees, and (2) as to non-refugees, that reasons must be given (subject to public debate) when exclusion is necessary. This stance, he contends, meets the minimum standard of justice; more expansive policies of entry may be desirable on humanitarian grounds but are not required by justice.

Miller grounds the moral justification for privileging current inhabitants over applicants for admission (and thus the right to control immigration) in each country's right of national self-determination. The fact that compatriots within the boundaries of a nation self-identify as citizens of that state has intrinsic social worth, he argues, because it supports a structure of mutual solidarity which, in turn, nurtures the feeling that such citizens "belong together and have responsibilities to each other." This mutual fellow-feeling authorizes individual sacrifice for the greater good, which undergirds the complex scheme of cooperation that constitutes a democratic nation-state. An unlimited flow of immigrants not subject to legal restrictions could undermine that accomplishment.

So, who should enter? Miller distinguishes sharply between economic migrants--those pursuing work and a better life--and asylum-seeking refugees with a "well-founded fear" of persecution or death in their home country on the basis of "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." This is the definition of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which is also the standard under U.S. law. Miller argues for a broader definition: those whose lives or fundamental human rights are in jeopardy and cannot be protected except by moving across a border, whether because of state persecution, state incapacity to protect, or prolonged natural disasters.

Refugees fleeing to avoid persecution or to save their lives are entitled to our deepest sympathy--and deserve the fulfillment of our obligations under international law. But even here hard choices must be made, especially if the number of refugees is overwhelming, as it currently is in several states of the European Union. …

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